• Some Stats: Mwanza-Muscat Part 18 April 10th, 2016

    Before I head off on another adventure I thought it would be interesting to post some statistics from my recent tour, alongside a few comments and reflections:

    Duration of tour: 238 days

    Total distance cycled: 10,375 km

    Total distance on unpaved roads: 2071 km. In northern Kenya and South Sudan I had no other option but to ride on dirt tracks. In other countries – Uganda, Ethiopia and Oman for example, I sometimes chose to take dirt tracks as a more adventurous/quieter alternative to the paved roads.

    Climbing away from Jebel Shams

    Number of non-cycling days: 106. I spent 3 weeks working in Tanzania (not in the original plan when I planned the trip) and took long rest stops in Kampala and Addis Ababa. Fortunately I was not bound by time constraints, so had the luxury to tour slowly and take as many rest days as I liked.

    Mean daily distance cycled: 78 km. People often ask how far I cycle each day. My reply is an average of 80-100km. On this particular tour I did plenty of short days.

    Longest day: 144 km in eastern Ethiopia. I was riding until late hoping to find somewhere to camp – never easy in Ethiopia as so much of the roadside was cultivated and populated. I ended up in a cheap Guest House.

    Highest altitude cycled: 3300m in eastern Ethiopia.

    Cost of visas: £410. Visas in Africa are almost always paid in US $ and the cost of mine as the trip progressed goes as follows: Kenya – $50 (3-month on arrival), Uganda – $100 (3-month on arrival), South Sudan – $100 (applied and paid for in Uganda), Ethiopia visa extension for 3 months$150. (I already had an original visa for Ethiopia that I had bought in London – £60 for a 6-month multiple entry – this needed extending when I was in Ethiopia as it was already 4 months old when I entered the country) Somaliland – $70 (1-month visa bought in Ethiopia), Oman $50 (1-month on arrival which I extended by another 1 month for an additional $50).

    Total cost of tour (including visas): £2450. When I left Tanzania for the final time I emptied my local bank account and changed all the remaining Tanzanian shillings into US $ ($2200 worth to be precise). Carrying more cash than necessary is never really recommended, but this kept me going for some months before I relied on my UK debit card to make cash withdrawals. I expected Oman would be the most costly country to tour through, but I camped almost every night during my time here. This meant daily costs were kept to a minimum, particularly as I wasn’t drinking alcohol and tourist attractions were very cheap.

    Mean cost per day: £10.29. By camping or staying in simple lodgings, eating local food and avoiding expensive tourist activities, my daily costs were relatively modest on this tour.

    Total spent on accommodation: £637.50. Most nights in Africa I stayed in local lodgings, ranging in price from bed-bug ridden £1 Guest Houses in Ethiopia, to more comfortable rooms costing £8-12+ (the highest I paid was £18 in Kenya). During the 3 weeks I worked in Tanzania accommodation was paid for. I was also invited as a guest in several places and used the Warmshowers website when there were hosts on my route.

    Number of nights spent in tent: 59. Most of my camping was done in Oman where I slept in the tent on 41 nights. Only on 1 of these 59 nights was I in a campsite where I paid to sleep (Murchinson Falls National Park in Uganda). I mostly wild camped in Oman because camping here was so safe, easy and scenic. Accommodation in Oman, when it did exist, was also relatively expensive (typically £30 upwards).

    Camping on Mughsal beach

    Total number of beers consumed: 361. This number is about 90% accurate; the 10% uncertainty owing to the days when I drank too many beers to remember. Bottled beer is easily available throughout East Africa. I consumed more beers in Ethiopia than anywhere else, which is partly because the bottles were generally smaller (often 330ml instead of 500ml like Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda) and also because they were so easily available. Beer in Ethiopia was also cheaper than anywhere else (around £0.30 for a bottle) and the hardship of my days cycling here usually demanded I drink at least 2 every night.

    Harar beer

    Mean number of beers consumed per day before arriving in Somaliland: 2.2. Once I left Ethiopia and continued through Somaliland and Oman I went without a drop of alcohol for well over 2 months.

    Number of punctures: (2 in Tanzania 4 in Uganda, 1 in Ethiopia, 1 in Oman).

    Hardest country to cycle through: Ethiopia (by far). Almost every day presented a battle with people (mostly children) who took great delight in chasing and taunting me from the roadside.

    Easiest country to cycle through: Oman. Safe, friendly, easy to camp, scenic, great roads (some can be steep!) – the list could go on. A fantastic winter cycle-touring destination.

    Most pleasant surprise: Being able to cycle freely in Somaliland without an armed escort, which I’d heard might be necessary.

    Country I would most like to return to: South Sudan. For reasons that puzzled me a little at the time, I was deported from the country on a remote road that felt as adventurous as anywhere else I’ve toured on the continent. Several months after leaving I read of another foreign cyclist who was robbed and left badly beaten at the roadside. Looking back, perhaps my desire for adventure had been sensibly curtailed by the police who found me. South Sudan was, and remains, far less secure than most of the other places I toured on this journey, but I’d seen so little of a country that looked like it had so much more to offer.

    Picked up by the Police

    Highlight of the tour: Spending 4 days at sea crossing from Somaliland to Oman with a crew of 15 Indians and a cargo of 500 cows. This was a timeless journey; detached from so many of the World’s problems one is witness to when on terra firma with an Internet connection.

    Sitting with some crew

  • Tanzania again: Mwanza-Muscat Part 2 July 10th, 2015

    Returning to Tanzania wasn’t in the original plan. This was, and remains, to ride north to Ethiopia and beyond. But the British Council, my former employer, needed an English teacher for a short-term contract in July. The job-spec sounded interesting. What would a 600km detour and 3 weeks off the road matter when I had no need to be any place at any particular time.

    So rather than continue north from Kisumu I rode south-east towards Kenya’s Rift Valley – a region of rolling green landscapes, tea-growing estates and welcome cool climates. Naturally this involved a bit of climbing, so it was a good job I’d consumed the 1kg of dates and 1kg of popcorn I had in my panniers when leaving Mwanza.

    Elevation profile: Kisumu-Kericho

    Actually the climb into Kenya’s Rift Valley wasn’t as bad as it looks here. This shows the elevation profile between Kisumu and Kericho – the former lying at an altitude of just under 1200m and the latter, 80km away, at around 2000m.

    I’ve started using this website to find the elevation profile between places. That’s when I can remember to look or have Internet access. Fortunately the strength of mobile Internet in Africa continues to develop faster than anything else here. Kenya, at least in towns, has excellent connection speeds. Worth noting that 2gb of data (including text messaging and about 60 minutes of call time) will cost around £6. That’s more than enough for over a week’s use of Internet on the road. It’s actually significantly cheaper than this in Tanzania.

    Tea plantation country.

    Robinson on the road

    The countryside was scenic, the towns mostly ugly. This came as no surprise. Small shanty-style tin-shacks and larger concrete structures – either abandoned or under construction, made no-where particularly pleasing to the eye when I stopped for something to eat or a place to stay. 

    But I enjoyed the surprise in peoples reactions and subsequent interaction at the roadside when stopping for a drink or stepping into a make-shift eatery. Most of these in Kenya are named ‘hotels’, but it’s simple food and tea on offer rather than accommodation. A lot more beans and chapatis consumed.

    Beans and chapati.

    Highway Hotel Menu

    Highway Hotel

    5 on a motorbike.

    Kiswahili is still widely spoken in Kenya, but it’s not heard as often as in Tanzania. Ethnic languages predominate here – the changing sounds of which are a good an indication of moving from one region to another. So eastwards from the Luo speakers around Lake Victoria it is Kalenjin that dominates the tea growing areas of Kericho and Bomet, before entering Masaai dominated territory that extends up to and across the border with Tanzania.


    Much of the landscape in the latter remains scarcely populated, largely consisting of expansive tracts of scrubland and spiky bush. Here cows and goats probably outnumber people. Massai-dominated towns are in fact as distinguishable by the colourful shawls worn by their long ear-lobed inhabitants as they are by the sight of butchers and the accompanying smell of roasted meat. Nyama Choma (roasted meat) seems to be a staple food in these parts of Kenya.

    Zone Butchery

    Kenyan butchers

    The truth is the meat is very good – far superior to what is served in Tanzania. I ordered 500g of roasted goat meat one evening from the restaurant of a hotel I stayed in (orders of 1kg or 1/2kg are the norm) and decided to do exactly the same the next night. It was some of the best meat I’ve had in Africa – affordable as well at less than £2.

    It might just be that I chose a good place to eat. The sight and smell of some of the butchers here are enough to turn one vegetarian. There are rumours that some nyama choma establishments in Kenya serve up donkey meat to unsuspecting customers. I wonder how that tastes.

    Nyama Choma

    The tarmac road was smooth and mostly quiet as I continued east, dropping in altitude and providing a wide sweeping view of Mt Suswa ahead of me.

    Looking east to Mt Susua

    This route was steering me directly towards Nairobi, which I had little desire nor need to enter for the second time.

    Invisible on google maps, but quite clearly demarcated on my paper map, was a track that appeared to totally bypass the capital. I feared it might be a busy short-cut, but soon realised once I saw the turn off just beyond the small town of Suswa, that it would be anything but. So I filled up my water bottles, bought some bananas, spaghetti, tomatoes and sukuma wiki (a green-leafed spinach type veg) and headed off into the bush planning to camp.

    Off the main road

    I had been looking forward to a night in the tent and had a wide expanse of land to choose from. Well that’s not strictly true. Surrounded by acacia trees and various other thorny foliage it made little sense to venture far from the track before pitching the tent.

    I think some people are under the impression that I spend most of my nights in this small green enclosure. I don’t. When adequate roofed accommodation is available for around £5 or less, which it often is in populated parts of East Africa, I don’t see much point in camping, unless I’m surrounded by some spectacular natural beauty, which usually isn’t the case if there are lots of people living in an area. Besides, wild camping isn’t particularly relaxing or safe if you are close to where people live, but trying to hide yourself. I’ve always found in this situation that it’s better to go and say hello and ask permission to camp. Invariably this often means pitching a tent somewhere like a school or church, or within someone’s compound. I’ve done this many times before in Africa.

    Anyhow, this kind of landscape, despite the mine-field of thorns, was one perfect for camping. I pitched the tent under a full moon and woke up with the tranquility of bird-song rather than a group of noisy children waiting outside for me.

    Camping in Masaai land

    Acacia Thorn

    Moth in my tent

    Fortunately the tyres remained puncture-free as I continued the following morning on a deteriorating but perfectly bikeable track in the direction of Ngong. It was hard to believe I was so close to Nairobi. My surroundings hadn’t felt more remote on this journey. Dirt tracks are always more memorable.

    Two wheels OK

    End of the road

    Back road to Ngong

    A steep climb

    Looking back over Masaai land

    Back on tarmac I joined the main road connecting Kenya with the Tanzanian border of Namanga. More Nyama Choma towns.

    By now I was able to greet people with a call of ‘Supa’ (the Masaai greeting for hello, which I probably mis-pronounced by just shouting ‘super’ at everyone – I think the correct pronunciation is ‘sopa’) from the saddle.

    Another Nyama Choma town

    I had music playing most of the time. When I first started touring I used to wear headphones to listen to music. Perhaps that was in the days before mini-speakers became so compact. Now I have a little blue-tooth speaker that sits in a small frame bag. It weighs almost nothing and emits a decent sound for its size. I just need to download some more music to play out of it.

    Music on the road

    Tanzanian immigration stamped me in for free when I returned. Bonus. Apparently a 90-day single-entry tourist visa, which I have, allows multiple entries back into the country for which the visa belongs to, assuming you are re-entering from Uganda and Kenya. This isn’t publicised, but is part of some East African Community agreement. Without knowing about it I can quite easily imagine many a traveller handing over a $50 bill for another visa. Hard to believe anyone in such an instance being told that it isn’t necessary to pay as their current visa remains valid.

    Namanga border between Kenya and Tanzania.

    The first thing I did after leaving Namanga and the trucks at the border is eat a potato omelette, more commonly known as chips mayai in Tanzania. It’s the national dish and designed for cyclists who want a low-cost high calorie meal. They don’t serve this in Kenya. They should. One usually has the option in places that dish out this African delicacy to order mishkaki (kebabs) – a woeful sized quantity of meat skewered onto one stick. It’s sensible to order at least several – they don’t cost much either.

    Chips Mayai: Tanzania's national dish

    It was massai land again on the road south to Arusha. Here the young shepherds bedecked in colourful finery seemed more interested to flag me down than they did in Kenya. It was always more than just a greeting of course. As I wrote in the previous post no-one ever asks you to stop in Africa just to say hello.

    101km to Arusha

    Evening shadow and Mt Longido

    Massai smile

    Masaai cyclist

    Masaai boys

    Massai feet

    Luxury awaited me in Arusha.I knew the hotel I was booked into and grinned widely as I ducked under the security barrier and rolled-up to the entrance. ‘You can’t park here’, said one of many uniformed guards as he took my camera and offered to take a picture.

    Arriving at The Arusha Hotel

    Ten minutes later I was stepping into a room that I would never be staying in were I paying for it. Lucky me. The only disappointment was the manager not agreeing to my suggestion of placing the bicycle on the balcony.

    Room in The Arusha Hotel

    The Arusha Hotel is one of east Africa’s oldest establishments, although nothing looks like it was here in 1884. Back then there would have been none of the groups of tourists that fill this place now. The car park if full of tour buses and safari vehicles. July is the start of the high season for trips to Serengeti, the Ngorogoro Crater and treks up Mount Kilimanjaro. Big business for people here. Arusha has dozens of forex bureaus. The moment I step out of the hotel I’m practically jumped upon by someone wishing to sell me something.

    I’m here for a few more weeks delivering an English language course to a group of ‘creative artists’. After that the journey continues.

    For those wishing to see the route I took from Kisumu-Arusha, scroll to the bottom of this page.

  • Here I go again: Mwanza-Muscat: Part 1 June 26th, 2015

    I hadn’t expected the tears. After 2 years I was wheeling the bike out of the gate for the final time. Leaving Mwanza. Leaving familiarity. Leaving friends and the comforts of having my own place and space. What a luxury that had been. I knew I would miss it, but it was time to move on.

     Tears at the gate

    It would have been easy to stay had my job contract been extended. Probably just as well it wasn’t. The work I was doing on paper had fizzled-out a long time ago. Whatever my employer in Dar-es-Salaam thought teacher trainers like myself were doing ‘up-country’ I have no idea.

    I had been posted to Mwanza to work in a Government Teacher Training College, but I soon came to the conclusion that no-one really did any work there. No wonder the country’s education system was in such a dire state. Tutors in the college rarely went to teach a class and once the novelty of my presence soon wore off I reached the conclusion that most people didn’t really care if I was there or not. It was just as well I liked living in Tanzania.

    From an outside perspective I was just a small fish in a foreign-funded aid project, employed as part of a poorly coordinated effort to improve the English language education system in a country where Kiswahili is very much the national language. It was always going to be a challenge. At the end of a two-year contract it was a more optimistic soul than me who said they had made a real impact or improvement in the education system.

    The Ministry of Education had happily signed-up to the project when the donor was ready to release funds. Well why wouldn’t they have done? African governments love outside assistance. British tax-payers money in this case.  

    I could continue for some while yet about the reasons for Tanzania’s failing education system and the enlightening insights gained from working on an aid project in Africa, but I shall return to the tears at the front gate. They didn’t last long. Well had no real reason to cry. Yes I was sad to be leaving, but also happy to be hitting the road again.

    Saying goodbye

    I always suspected when I finished my contract that I would just pedal off. It seemed like the simplest thing to do. One push on the pedals and you’re free-wheeling away – assuming you’re going downhill to begin with, which I was.

    Rolling out of Mwanza

    The road through and out of town was of course familiar. There are only two principal routes into and out of Mwanza. One leads south towards Shinyanga and the rest of Tanzania (the same road I cycled on a daily basis to college at one time) and the other east, rounding Lake Victoria’s Speke Gulf before it turns north in the direction of Kenya. It was the latter that I and two friends pedalled out on.

    The weather couldn’t have been better really. It had just rained and rain is almost always welcome in Africa, particularly in the dry season. The sky was overcast and the air refreshingly cool. I didn’t even apply sunscreen.

    For some years Ethiopia has been on my list of countries to visit, so when I first conceived the idea of a cycle tour at the end of my contract, this seemed like the most obvious place to pedal off towards. That remains the plan. But then I started reading about Somaliland (not Somalia) and how great Oman was to tour in winter. Mwanza-Muscat had a nice sounding ring to it, so there we are.

    Unlike the last several tours I have made in the past few years I don’t have a specific time-frame for this journey. It’s great to have that luxury again. The freedom to wake up somewhere and think yes, I will stay here another day, or look at a map and decide to take some circuitous and remote dirt road rather than rushing along a main route. That’s a great feeling.

    So I rolled out of Mwanza at a rather leisurely pace on that Sunday morning, my front panniers about 5kg heavier than they needed to be owing to various foodstuffs that weren’t a necessity to carry (1kg of dates, 2 large mangoes, 1 kg of popcorn, 500g of oats, 500ml of cooking oil, 500g of Tanzanian coffee and a can of redbull that had been left over at a small leaving party I’d thrown a few nights previously).

    I’d laid all the gear out the previous night on the floor of my sitting room, then put it into panniers and balanced them out the following morning. Well that didn’t didn’t take long. I’ve done it hundreds of times. Tool bag and spare front tyre below foodstuffs in one front pannier, cooking pots, stove, tupperware container (holding salt, pepper, chilli and curry powder, spork, lighter) and more foodstuff in the other front pannier. The rest finds a home in the rear panniers with the camping bag bungeed onto the top of the rack. Oh, and my handlebar bag that contains camera, passport, money and map. All in all about 34kg on a bike weighing 20kg. That’s not a light load, but if I wanted to lose several plus kgs, aside from the food, there are plenty of ways. Those jeans with the leather belt perhaps. I never used to tour with a pair of jeans, but then there are occasions, not camping in the bush, where it’s nice to get out of cycling gear.

    My kit laid bare

    Fully-loaded and ready

    I only got as far as the small town of Magu on that first day, just 65km. Rain fell heavily for a few hours so I took an early lunch stop with one of the friends who would later turn back, then waited for it to pass.

    Rain delays play

    Roadside eateries are common and easy to find in Tanzania. A bucket of water, like the one pictured above, acts as a hand-basin to wash your hands before and after a meal, which is very much the custom. How clean the water is inside the bucket who knows, but rather than look for a sign-post advertising somewhere to eat, a bucket like this is a better indication that food is nearby. In more simple establishments it will be cooked outside over a few charcoal braziers.

    Food on the road in much of Sub-Saharan Africa is a simple affair. Rice, beans, Ugali (cassava or maize stodge – see pics) meat (one of or a choice of chicken, beef, goat, fish) and some green-leafed veg pretty much sums up the majority of lunches. One can’t really go wrong with beans, which has the habit of producing some serious post-lunch sound effects from the area of my saddle. I always tell anyone who cycles with me that the most dangerous place to be on the road is right behind me.

    Fish and Rice

    Lunch in Lamadi

    Border nosh

    Fuel stop

    Lunch in Mbita

    Beef, Ugali and Sukuma wiki

    I knew the road as far as Bunda, having cycled it before in the opposite direction. Lake Victoria is never very far away, but mostly out of sight. It’s not a particularly scenic road – most flat ones aren’t, but following the rains the landscape is green and for a brief stretch the road forms the western boundary of the Serengeti National Park. Most large animals are probably sensible enough to stay further inside the park, but zebra, wildebeest, baboons and monkeys don’t seem particularly bothered by passing traffic.

    Edge of Serengeti National Park

    Beer carrier

    In Bunda I missed the opportunity to sleep in the JoyDick Hotel, having already checked-in to one of the many other affordable lodgings that were less amusingly named. Like food, accommodation in Tanzania is easy to find and most places have the added bonus of composing of a single storey. This means it’s easy to wheel the bike into the room rather than having to lug it up some stairs.

    Tanzanian Accommodation

    Guest house in Bunda

    North of Bunda I veered off on a dirt track towards the sleepy lakeside town of Musoma. At one time in the early 20th Century this was an important German garrison town, when Tanzania was part of Deutsch Ostafrika. Now its dusty grid-lined streets and faded shop-fronts display neglect. In Africa it’s much easier to build new again rather than maintain something that’s old.

    Balancing rocks

    Lake shore Musoma

    Downtown Musoma

    Goats in Musoma

    The lake at Musoma was a wonderful bright shade of green. Highly uninviting to go for a swim in. In actual fact during the 2 years I lived in Mwanza I only once went for a swim in the lake, and that was off a beach on the island of Ukerewe.

    Unlike Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika, where the water is blue, clear and clean, much of Lake Victoria is a murky mess. There are various reasons for this. One is the introduction of the infamous ‘Nile Perch’ by British Colonial officials in the 1950’s. While Lake Malawi and Tanganyika have hundreds of small cichlid fish that eat up bacteria and detritus, the Nile Perch, which grows to monster sizes, eats all these fish. Many businessmen and government officials see the fish as an economic boost (the fish is exported around the world), but it’s also the story of an environmental disaster.

    Aside from the uninviting colour of the lake for a swim, there is bilharzia to worry about, and the usual stories involving crocodiles and hippos.

    Uninvitingly green!

    Back on tarmac I continued towards the Kenyan border, the climb in altitude a reminder that I really didn’t need to be carrying 1kg of popcorn. Rocky outcrops flanked the roadside and the scenery improved.

    Kenyan cyclist

    At one point in the mid-day heat I spotted a small solid object slowly moving across the road in front of me. As I approached and got off the bike it stopped then disappeared into its shell. It wasn’t going to move until I did, but I was glad it had safely made it across the road. It’s not a common sight to see tortoises on the road in Africa. At least not in my experience. Dead snakes or dogs are much more familiar.

    Tortoise crossing

    At the Kenyan border I very nearly didn’t pay my $50 for a 90-day visa. Very nearly in the sense that I had been given my passport back and told to enjoy my stay in Kenya without having paid any money.

    ‘Is there anything else?’ I asked the pretty immigration clerk before preparing to walk out of the clean and newly built hall. ‘No that’s it’, came the slightly unsure reply. Well I could have reminded her there and then, but didn’t. I was 10 seconds from wheeling the bike through the barrier nearby and disappearing off before a security guard called me back.

    In Kenya’s first town, Migori, the bank wouldn’t change my Tanzanian shillings. I could have done this at the border nearby, but my neighbours in Mwanza had been scammed there recently in an identical fashion to one I recall at another African border. ‘No-one here wants that money’, said the corpulent bank manager who was more interested in knowing the value of my bicycle. ‘You can find a forex bureau in Kisumu’. So I changed some British Pounds and went in search of a Guest House and cold beer.

    Kenya's classic

    New beer - once only!

    Kisumu was where I was headed to, but I chose to ride back towards the lake from Migori. It was a scenic dirt track in stretches – green hillsides and views of the lake in places. Not much four-wheeled traffic, but often three or four people on a moto-taxi.

    Road to Magunga

    Rough road to Mbita

    Looking south to the Gwasi Hills

    Interacting with Kenyans in shops and roadside eateries is a lot easier than with many Tanzanians. Firstly people speak a lot more English, but more importantly there is a greater level of confidence about them. In Tanzania I could converse in simple Kiswahili, but there was often a reserved nature about people. Many would be surprised a mzungu could speak Kiswahili, so it was less common that they would initiate a conversation, while children would call ‘mzungu’ out from the roadside, but often runaway if I stopped or attempted to take a picture.

    The usual suspects.

    Local shop in rural Kenya

    The context here however is more or less often the same. Stories of poverty, the need for school fees etc etc. In one village where I wanted to confirm I was heading in the right direction an elderly man called me over. He was manning a small petrol pump. ‘What can you do for me’? he asked while I looked down at my paper map. I laughed, made sure I was on the right road, then pedalled off. It was a question I heard more than a few times.

    Well that’s nothing new. Cycle tour through Africa and rarely will there be a day when something isn’t asked of you by someone. I learnt a long time ago that it’s good practice not to stop when someone is waving you down or pretending they need water from your bottles when there is a water source nearby. Rather than just wanting a chat, which may well be the case, there will often be some other agenda that involves me providing financial help.

    Most Kenyans in this part of the country aren’t hesitant to tell you how much of a problem AIDS is. Western Kenya has some of the highest rates in Africa. When I asked people for the reasons they simply said it was due to poverty. It was usually me who suggested that the rates would be lower if people used condoms. Condoms are free here, so there is no excuse there.

    Another noticeable feature of rural Kenya is how many abandoned and boarded-up buildings there are at the roadside. Makeshift corrugated or wooden shacks are favoured over concrete structures – the kind of places that could be constructed in half a day with minimal cost. I’m not sure why I imagined Kenya to be more developed in this respect. Rural poverty is very evident.

    Local Barbershop

    Village sound system

    Boarded-up shops

    When I rejoined tarmac from the village of Mbita it was on that super-smooth texture that signals a sign of Chinese influence in recent years. I had cycled just under 600km from Mwanza and had less than 100km to reach Kisumu.

    East from Mbita

    Well that’s where I am now. Enjoying fast Internet and several days of rest in a room larger than some of the cell-like spaces I might spend a night. I haven’t actually camped yet. Possibly on the next stretch. From here I’m heading off in a totally different direction to Ethiopia. More about that in the next post. A map of the route I just took and an elevation chart can be viewed at the bottom of the Maps page.

    Room in Kisumu

  • Old roads and new: Mbeya-Mwanza Part 3 March 18th, 2015

    The tarmac stopped at the Tanzanian border. On the Burundian side the road was under construction. A man wearing a wide-rimmed straw hat was sat in the seat of a road grading machine. I waved at him as I slowly climbed up the steep slope that cut into the green hillside. Either he didn’t see me or pretended not to. I’m sure my bicycle must have been in his vision. I would have asked him many questions given the opportunity, but doubt he’d have understood them, unless I spoke Chinese.

    This was my second visit to Burundi and I was happy to be back. The African mainland’s second most densely populated country is a great place to cycle, so it’s a pity the country isn’t bigger.

    The photos in this final blog post cover the remainder of my journey through Burundi, Rwanda, a day in Uganda and then back to Mwanza in Tanzania. Lots more mountains, smiles, some great scenery and the usual great cycling.

    Chinese road construction

    Another new road in the making. Heading north from the Burundian/Tanzanian border to the town of Makamba, where the tarmac starts again.

    Burundian beer

    Now here’s a beer that’s worth drinking. It might not be African by name, but it’s brewed in Burundi and tastes great.

    Mission beside Lake Tanganyika

    One of the few flat roads in Burundi runs along the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

    North to Bujumbura

    Heading north to Bujumbura. I cycled this road in the opposite direction 18 months ago.

    Sunset over Lake Tanganyika

    Sunset over Lake Tanganyika. The sky wasn’t clear enough to see the DRC on the other side.

    Burundian curiosity

    It’s hard not to draw a crowd when stopping on the roadside in Burundi. Few people travel here and people are curious to get a closer look.

    Bujumbura Coffee factory

    The mountains in Burundi produce some great coffee. By the end of my trip my panniers contained about 4kg of coffee from Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. This photo was taken in Bujumbura. I stayed 2 nights and parted ways with Anselm here, who stayed on longer.

    Bicycle cargo

    Bicycles in Burundi are commonly loaded with all sorts of cargo. This is on the road north from Bujumbura to the Rwandan border post near Bugarama.

    House on wheels

    At least 100kg of bricks loaded up here. I discreetly took a picture from behind as I feared photographing from the side or front might cause this poor chap to loose his balance!

    An aged saddle

    An aged saddle with some serious character.

    Weld job on Surly front rack

    During the 7 week tour the brackets on both sides of the Surly front rack broke. It wasn’t hard to find a welder, but the welds broke on several occasions. I have new brackets back in the UK.

    Burundi Map

    Painted up on the wall of a bar. An outline of one of Africa’s smallest and most densely populated countries

    Lake Kivu

    On my first day in Rwanda I briefly passed Lake Kivu.

    Tea Plantation

    Tea plantations on the road east from Cyangugu at about 1700m in altitude.

    Above the morning mist in Nyungwe Forest

    Climbing up through the cool mountain air to 2600m in altitude, Nyungwe Forest remains a rare reminder of what so much of Equatorial Africa must have looked like before man started to deforest it.

    Big day of climbing

    Anything over 1500m of accumulated climbing in a day on a fully loaded bicycle constitutes a challenging one. Day 1 in Rwanda and typically it’s all up and down – mostly up.

    Morning sunlight in Nyungwe Forest

    Morning sunlight in Nyungwe Forest. This was the view from outside my tent, which was pitched on a rare flat space of land, fortunately invisible from the roadside. I had been told it was illegal to camp within the National Park. Had I been seen by Park Rangers I would have been fined and asked to move. The reality was there was no-where else to sleep.

    The Congo and Nile River watershed

    Some interesting African Geography I didn’t know. This was taken in Nyungwe Forest.

    Local bike

    Plenty of local wooden bikes like this on the road in Rwanda. Great for downhills, less so for up.

    Local bike

    Roadside spectators

    Children are everywhere in Rwanda – something that could be said about a lot of sub-Saharan African countries. Here however the population density is so high that stopping on the roadside is almost always associated with a collection of young faces.

    Project Rwanda: Coffee Bike

    I saw a lot of these ‘cargo bikes’ in Rwanda. I think they were designed with the idea of transporting coffee, but any load will do.

    French couple on tour

    They told me their names twice and I still forget. They were headed south towards Burundi – their English as poor as my French, of which I seem to have forgotten lots since west and Central African days on The Big Africa Cycle. When the crowd of kids got too much we bid each other bon voyage.

    Waterfall in Rwanda

    I don’t remember the name of the Waterfall – in fact I almost missed it on the road north from Kigali to Uganda. Fortunately it was only a few hundred metres from the road and easy to reach.

    Terraced slopes north from Byumba

    After climbing north from Kigali on the RN3 – one of Rwanda’s super clean paved roads, you reach a small junction town called Byumba with a lovely view north towards Uganda.

    Rwandan school student

    I was as much impressed by this Rwandan boy’s English as I was his motorcycle side-mirror.

    Kabale at dawn

    I am rarely awake and on the road at sunrise, but during the final days of this tour I was on a mission to reach Bukoba in Tanzania in time for work. And so it was that I pedalled out of Kabale shortly before dawn – a good reminder that this is the best time of the day in Africa.

    Katoro: Ugandan breakfast

    Ugandans consume more bananas per head than any other nationality in the World apparently. Katogo is a common breakfast – plantain, beans – and usually offal, the latter fortunately absent here. Great energy for the road.

    Roasted meat and phone charging

    Just one of those random signs that make you laugh and stop.

    Camping above the Kagera River

    Another special camp spot, of which there were many on this tour. The Kagera River is, for want of argument, the source of the Nile. Its headwaters drain from Rwanda and the river itself flows into Lake Victoria. This whole area on the Uganda/Tanzania border had a remoteness to it. My tent was pitched a hundred metres or so above the river, soothingly audible as I fell asleep early after 135km that day, mostly on a dirt track.

    Re-entry to Tanzania

    This was interesting. My GPS and map was telling me I was now on the border of Uganda and Tanzania, but there was no immigration post nor anyone in sight, just a rusted sign showing the distances to various towns ahead. Fortunately I have a Tanzanian residency permit, so wasn’t fussed that my passport wouldn’t be getting a re-enty stamp into Tanzania. Likewise I was never stamped out of Uganda, having paid $50 for a visa when I was only there 36 hours.

    Back in Tanzania I spent the first week dressed in shirt and trousers to attend a training workshop for Secondary School teachers. The plan after this had been to take a ferry from Bukoba back to Mwanza, but it was out of service and so I cycled the remaining 450km.

    Fish soup, chapati and chai

    Breakfast in a village cafe beside Lake Victoria. Fish soup, chapati and spiced tea.

    Young girl and her mother

    On the road from Bukoba to Mwanza.

    School transport

    It’s very common to see 3 or more people on a bicycle taxi in rural Africa.

    Petelol Station

    Rural Africa has lots of makeshift constructions like this selling fuel by the litre in plastic bottles. This however is the first Petelol Station I have seen.

    Timber being transported

    I wouldn’t want to be turning a sharp corner on this bicycle.

    Charcoal transport

    Charcoal is probably the most common source of fuel for cooking in Tanzania. Sacks such as these are transported from rural to urban areas, very frequently on the backs of bicycles.

  • Old roads and new: Mbeya-Mwanza. Part 2 March 11th, 2015

    The boat left Mbamba Bay just before sunset. It was a scenic time to be out on the lake. The sky was clear, the water calm, and my bicycle safely wedged between a few large sacks of cassava and second-hand clothes. It felt good to be breaking the tour up with a boat journey – a peaceful continuation of slow travel without the physical exertion of the lung-bursting climbs I’d been experiencing on the road.

    Other than the captain and two crewmen, a young woman and several of what I guessed were her children, the boat had plenty of space to pick up more passengers and cargo, which I suspected would be the case. We were headed south towards the Mozambican shores of Lake Malawi, although with no visa I hoped African officialdom, should there be any, would be kind on me.

    Here are a few photos from that journey, along with those from the road in Malawi and western Tanzania. The photos in this blog post, as with the last, were shot with either a Nikon D90 or Samsung S4 phone, then edited a little in Lightroom and Snapseed respectively. Those without my watermark were taken by Anselm Nathanael who appears in this photo blog story. This is the first real time I have done much post-production. Comments and recommendations are welcome.

    Beach in Chiwindi

    After several hours of motoring south from Mbamba bay we arrived in the village of Chimate, a short distance from the border with Mozambique. It was dark, but there seemed to be a hive of activity along the beach as young men prepared to head out onto the lake in their dugout canoes, each one rigged up with bright lights to attract fish. December, I had been told, was a popular time for catching dagaa, a small minnow-sized fish that is typically dried on the beach for a few days then transported inland in large sacks. Apparently it’s a profitable business. Like many fishermen with money to spend in a place with not much to do, excessive alcohol consumption seemed to be the most popular activity. I found a warm beer in a makeshift shack, which had a generator rigged up outside so that football could be shown, but retreated to the beach shortly afterwards and slept alongside the crew right at the very spot where this picture was taken just before sunrise.

    Dawn departure on Lake Malawi

    It wasn’t long before we were motoring off and headed south towards Mozambique. I’m rarely awake and travelling so early, but that dawn serenity is usually the best time of the day in Africa.

    Boat to Likoma Island

    Early morning sunlight and a few extra passengers onboard as we head into Mozambican waters. The village of Chiwindi appears to be the official border between Tanzania and Mozambique – another line drawn across a map by Europeans who probably never came to this part of Africa. Two Mozambican policemen, familiar to the captain, board the boat and pick up a few bags. It seems to be customary that there will be a small exchange of money – enough for them to feed themselves and have a few drinks for a day or two I suppose. Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, is many days of travel away and this is about as distant a post to be stationed at as possible.

    Mozambican beach on Lake Niassa

    The boat stops at a number of remote beaches along the Mozambican shore of Lake Malawi. For most people living here it’s boats like this that provide the only means by which to sell their produce. Likoma Island, which is part of Malawi, is only a short distance away and provides the closest market for trade.

    Boys in Lake Malawi

    How else would you spend your days if you grew up in a remote village along the shores of a crystal clear lake in Africa.

    Ilala replacement in Likoma

    Likoma Island ought to be part of Mozambique seeming that the mainland is only 7km away, but the founding on the island in 1880 of the Anglican Mission to Central Africa meant it remained within what is now Malawi. On arrival I was accosted by two plain-clothed policeman on the beach who demanded an inspection of my panniers. This doesn’t happen very frequently, but they clearly had nothing better to do. Neither did the small crowd of local islanders who were very interested to see what I had inside my bike bags. In one of the front panniers I carry a small tupperware box that contains cooking ingredients – salt, pepper, cooking oil, mixed herbs. Well the latter clearly got the attention of the police and crowd seeming that it looked just like marijuana. It took a little time before I convinced them that it was no more than a mixture of dried mint, oregano, basil etc. I stayed on the island, which I first visited 14 years ago, a few nights, waiting for another boat to transport me onwards to Nkhata Bay on the Malawian mainland. The boat that took me there is pictured here, a replacement for the MV Illala, which appears in the photo below.

    MV Ilala arriving in Likoma

    Built in Scotland in 1949, the Ilala has been operating on Lake Malawi since 1951. I’ve travelled on it before, but had heard it was being repaired this time round so prepared to take the boat in the previous picture. Just as we were about to leave the Ilala made a surprise appearance – the first time it had arrived on the island in months.

    Mango stop

    The last time I was in Malawi it was also December, so I knew mangoes would be in season. I spent my first two nights on the Malawian mainland at the ever-popular Nkhata Bay. Just like last time I came here it was full of American Peace-Corp volunteers on holiday. Away from the humid lakeside shore the road climbs to Mzuzu, a route I’ve cycled before and from where this picture was taken. Just like 3 years previously, most roads in Malawi are blissfully free of traffic.

    Coke stop with new friends

    Days were hot in Malawi, but I was fortunate to avoid the heavy rain that made international headlines a few weeks later with parts of the country flooded. Coke stops and random roadside exchanges were a familiar feature as always.

    Malawian hospitality

    It’s always a great experience to be invited to stay with a local family. The evening before this picture was taken I’d stopped to buy mangoes on the roadside nearby. When asked where I would be sleeping, to which I didn’t have a definite reply (I guessed I would just camp as there were no towns) I was soon welcomed to stay. I left the next morning with panniers full of mangoes.

    Descent to Lake Malawi

    Having climbed away from the lake after leaving Nkhata Bay, the road north through Malawi descends again, offering great views across to Tanzania.

    Japanese cyclist on a recumbent

    Malawi is so small and cycle friendly that there’s always a good chance of meeting other cyclists on the road. Lu, from Japan, had started his trip over a year ago and had recently flown to Tanzania then cycled into Malawi. Recumbents look a lot more comfortable in many respects than normal bicycles, but on rough roads with steep gradients I’m not sure how well they would handle.  

    Road to Chitipa

    It was another of those new and smooth Chinese roads, the kind which seem to be getting more and more popular in Africa. This one connected the lakeside town of Karonga in northern Malawi, with Chitipa, which lies close to the borders of Tanzania and Zambia. It was Christmas day and there was barely another vehicle on the road. I had hoped the dark clouds a few kilometres up ahead would empty their load on me. Short intense rain-showers are very welcome in equatorial Africa, but unfortunately it stayed dry all day.

    Anselm the German

    Anselm and I first met in Nkhata Bay, then started cycling together from Chitipa. He’d been on the road in Africa for eight months before I met him, slowly moving north from Cape Town with no specific route or time plan to return home to Germany. We continued to cycle together through western Tanzania and into Burundi, his rear bicycle wheel suffering from a number of broken spokes during this time. Riding a bicycle with 28″ wheels in Africa makes it harder to find spare parts, but he claimed he was too tall to ride a standard 26″ wheel bike.

    Towards the Tanzania border

    From Chitipa a small dirt track branched off towards the border with Tanzania. At one stage I’d planned to cross into Zambia from Malawi, then head north to Lake Tanganyika and use the ferry service across the Lake, but there were rumours that this boat was also out of service. Besides, I’d taken this boat when I first travelled in Africa and was now quite looking forward to exploring western Tanzania by road.

    Tanzanian Immigration in Isongole

    The Tanzanian immigration office in the small town of Isongole probably doesn’t see many foreigners passing through. With a residency permit it means I don’t have to hand out $50 for the standard 90-day tourist visa.

    Old bridge south from Tunduma

    First day back in Tanzania and the weather and scenery is great. From Isongole a quiet dirt track leads towards Tunduma. Narrow bridges like the one pictured here aren’t so common in Tanzania these days.

    Rural Africa

    Same bridge as above. Bicycles are a more common form of transport on small roads like this than motorised transport.

    Perfect camping

    Great spot to pitch the tent in for the first night back in Tanzania. The mountains in the background form the border with Malawi.

    On the Tazara Line

    There aren’t many trains operating in Tanzania these days. This is the Tazara line railway, which connects Tanzania with Zambia. It was paid for and built by the Chinese in the early 1970’s – a time when Tanzania and China were particularly good friends. Now the Chinese have switched their attention to road-building. A bi-weekly passenger train still runs along here, but you need plenty of patience for the journey.

    Dark skies and smooth roads

    A few years ago, or less, this would have been an unpaved road in western Tanzania. Little used then, it remains that way, mostly because the population density out here is low. Thank you again China. At the time of riding (Dec 2014) the road from Tunduma north to Sumbawanga is beautifully paved, and remains so for about another 50km.

    Truck surfing

    I took Anselm’s cue for a few minutes one day and saved my legs. Whenever there was a passing truck on a hill Anselm would be sure to be holding on. His luggage weighed far more than mine, on account of lugging a 3-person tent, two cooking stoves and various other gear which probably weren’t necessary in Tanzania, but might have been elsewhere.

    Mango stop

    Rare was there a day when I didn’t stop for mangoes. The small variety as pictured here are more or less given away – pocket money for kids.

    Random village stop

    Villages in western Tanzania don’t see many foreign faces so a fair amount of curiosity is created when stopping at a shop. For some random reason the woman holding a bucket to my right demanded to be given my underpants that were drying on the camping bag on my rear rack.

    North from Sumbawanga

    Another great camp spot – this one just north from Sumbawanga where the tarmac stopped.

    Mud attack

    When the tarmac stopped north of Sumbawanga the mud started. Fortunately it was only for a short stretch. With mudguards on my bike there isn’t a whole of clearance.

    Green mamba?

    Sizeable and about to disappear into the dense bush on the road north from Sumbawanga. A green mamba perhaps?

    Impressive horns

    The Ankole longhorn cow is native to Africa and has horns that can apparently reach 2.4metres long. Not sure what people do with the horns when they are killed. Anyhow, such impressive beasts are a common sight in west Tanzania.

    New Years Eve Camp

    Not a bad place to pitch the tent on 31st December. It was a long day on the road and I was asleep by 9pm.

    Sign in Katavi National Park

     A sign like this is pretty useless unless you have someone enforcing such rules. A public road cuts through Katavi National Park, so game viewing is almost guaranteed, particularly if you follow some of the tracks that run parallel to the main road. Visiting the park as a normal tourist on an organised tour would, like most safaris in Tanzania, cost a lot. First there is the $50 per day National Park fees and then there is the vehicle and driver to pay. Very few tourists visit Katavi National Park, which makes the experience of travelling through it all the more special.

    Giraffes up close: Katavi National Park

    Unlike some other large animals in Katavi National Park, there is little sense of danger when up close with Giraffes. Most of them run away long before you get anywhere near them. These two paused for a short time before deciding which way to run. A great moment!

    Buffalo stand-off

    He was still some distance away, but very much aware of my presence – stopping for several minutes before deciding which way to move. Katavi National Park reportedly has large herds of Buffalo, but when alone they are apparently more dangerous (I read this afterwards fortunately).

    Hippo watching

    In the water hippos look lazy and disinterested – sensibly keeping cool unlike those on bicycles watching them.

    Hippo on the move

    Best given plenty of space when out of water and aware of your presence. He soon disappeared.

    Katavi National Park

    What this photo doesn’t show are the hundreds of Tsetse flies attached to my front and rear panniers. I attempted to out-cycle them, which proved futile. Nasty bites and mosquito repellent were also completely ineffective. Other than that this was a very pleasant track in the National Park, running parallel to the main road nearby.

    Mobile market

    A market on two wheels – not an uncommon sight in rural Africa. This young chap seemed to take great pride in his work – donning a shirt and bow-tie as he cycled between villages on the outskirts of Mpanda. The tarmac lasted about 30km before returning to dirt.

    Highway Guest House Mpanda

    I rested here a few nights on a heavy dose of antibiotics. Many days of continued cycling had caused a rather unpleasant boil to develop on my backside; an occupational hazard of sorts. Highway Guest House was a slightly misleading name as Mpanda is a long way from anywhere. Highway would therefore be referring to the dirt track that heads either to Tabora in one direction or Kigoma, where I was going, in the other.

    Lunch in Mpanda

    Lunch in Mpanda: Pilau (spiced rice) fried fresh fish from Lake Tanganyika, chilli relish, beans and salad – £1.20 well spent.

    Grilled chicken

    Having watched this chicken being killed only minutes before, at least I knew it was fresh. It was soon cut into £0.40 pence pieces, (wings, legs, neck etc) which were skewered on wooden sticks and sold on the roadside.

    Painting of Julias Nyerere

    This painting wasn’t finished, but the artist had a long way to go before making his depiction of Tanzania’s first President look anywhere near decent. 

    East German African coin.

    German East African coin: From 1885-1919 what is now Tanzania was then part of German East Africa. In a small village close to Kigoma a young child showed me this coin, perhaps found in the dirt. He was more than happy to exchange it for a few sweets.

    German East African colonial coin

    I later researched the coin, on the off chance it might be worth something to a collector. A coin such as this in mint condition (never in circulation) is estimated to be worth around 50 Euros. Anything else is worth very little, so it remains a nice souvenir.

    Burundian Consulate in Kigoma

    Very convenient for onward travel to Burundi. A 7-day visa for Burundi can be issued on the same day for $40 in Kigoma.

    Kigoma Train Station

    Kigoma’s most prominent building is its German built train station, where a twice-weekly train leaves for Dar es Salaam. It’s a journey I’ve made before, and one that takes at least two days. Kigoma is the first place I ever visited in Tanzania, arriving by boat after a three day journey across Lake Tanganyika from Zambia.

    Pineapple man

    Heading to the market, downhill fortunately, with 100 or so pineapples (small ones £0.20 large ones £0.40). This was taken on the smooth, Chinese-built road that climbs from Kigoma to the Burundian border post.

    Pineapple stop

    It’s amazing how the pineapples are stacked and balanced. Dozens of bicycles, equally as heavily laden with pineapples, passed me by so after a while I stopped to buy one – kind of foolish as I was climbing all day!

    Leaf umbrellas

    Young Tanzanian boys on the road to the Burundi border.

    Camping in no-mans land.

    Pitched in no-mans land between Tanzanian and Burundian immigration posts. A lovely spot to sleep before crossing into Burundi the next day, where this photo blog story will continue.

  • Old roads and new: Mbeya-Mwanza. Part 1 February 26th, 2015

    The flights were booked well in advance. Mwanza-Dar-es-Salaam, then Dar-es-Salaam-Mbeya. Less than £90 in total, including the extra luggage allowance for the bike in a box.

    The tour had been on my mind for months – around about the same time I booked the flights I guess. Beyond a rough route, which would bring me back to Mwanza by bike, I had little specifically planned for what ended up being 7 weeks on the road.

    The Southern Highlands of Tanzania would be first up, an area of the country I’d yet to cycle through. Then I’d cross Lake Niassa to Malawi and ride north, possibly heading into Zambia and connecting with the ferry service across Lake Tanganyika to Kigoma in Western Tanzania. If there was time I’d revisit Burundi and Rwanda, dip into Uganda and then return to Tanzania. One thing I was sure I wouldn’t do, unless absolutely necessary, was subject my bicycle and bottom to the discomfort of an African bus.

    The journey wouldn’t be short of climbs given that most of my intended route would pass through the Rift Valley. In fact there were very few flat days on the tour, as evidenced by the elevation chart below. In total I rode just under 3200km, in 38 days, and accumulated 36,458m of altitude, according to my GPS unit.

    It was a great tour – both on and off the bike, riding a mixture of paved and unpaved roads and revisiting a few places I’d been before. I’ll do my best to share it here with pictures and descriptions over a series of blog posts.

    Climbing away from Mbeya.

    It’s a perfect day and a perfect road to roll out of Mbeya on. Starting at 1700m the air is cool and it’s uphill all day – 25km on smooth tarmac then 25km on a dirt track towards Kitulo National Park. I’m in relatively good fitness, but 20kg of luggage, plus water, feels like a serious work out.

    Service with a smile: Fruit and veg seller

    Buying local fruit and veg on the roadside has to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of cycling in Africa. People try to flog you an entire bucket of whatever is in season, unaware that carrying 5kg of carrots or tomatoes in your panniers isn’t sensible. And so you offer some small change and pick a handful, which is usually OK. I stopped to buy plums here, rare in Tanzania. Also nice to get service with a smile.

    Room for the night

    Room for the first night in a village called Kikondo. Pretty basic and pretty grim, but clean enough and at £1.80 per night I couldn’t really complain. It was the only Guest House in Kikondo (unsigned) – 10 tiny rooms or so behind a bar. I could have camped, but wimped out under dark skies. Kikondo is at about 2800m altitude so I asked the receptionist/bar girl to prepare some hot water for a shower. I turned in for the night early, happy the village’s limited power supply meant all was quiet by 10pm. Tanzania is one of Africa’s easiest countries to find cheap accommodation in. Naturally the choice, quality and price go with the size of the place.

    View over Kitulo National Park

    On the second day I entered Kitulo National Park. It’s one of Tanzania’s lesser known parks (no big animals here) and is mostly situated at over 2000m in altitude. Between Jan-Feb wild flowers cover many of the slopes, so I was a month or so early.

    Road to Makete

    Road through Kitulo National Park. Why does a Giraffe and Lion reside on my handlebars? No particular reason other than they were being sold off cheap on an online store when I was purchasing various other gear, and felt like pimping the bike up with some random mascots. Just a kid at heart really. Front light is also a new edition, wired up to the dynamo hub, although I rarely used it and found the placement right on the front of the rack to be too susceptible to the occasional knock. Will have to rethink that one.

    South from Kitale National Park

    Almost no traffic on this track heading to Makete in the Southern Highlands. I had read that December was the wet season, so was perhaps lucky that almost no rain fell during the first week. On some of the tracks, wet weather would have made the going very hard.

    Which way to go

    There were many tracks in the Southern Highlands and it wasn’t always obvious which one to take. I had download a GPS app on my phone, which showed hundreds of interconnecting tracks. I usually just followed my instinct and took whichever was going in the right direction.

    Hot chips and coke

    Food options were fairly limited in the Southern Highlands, but surrounded by fields of potatoes it wasn’t hard to find a plate of fresh chips. And coke, well coca-cola is never that hard to find in Africa.

    Shit road and steep gradients

    The scenery was superb, but the gradients on this track through the Southern Highlands were amongst the steepest I have ever cycled on (typically 12-18%+). Down one valley side and up another – all day. In the lowest gear I would usually cycle for a few hundred metres at 4-5km/hr, rest and drink water, then continue. Pushing the bike (about 45kg) on loose surfaces meant it was impossible to get any grip. Had there been rain such roads would have become very difficult to ride. This was the third day of riding on the tour and I managed 35km in about 6 hours, climbing 1200m. When I arrived mid-afternoon in the small village of Lupila I was told I had taken the short-cut, which probably meant the track people walk on.

    All up and down here!

    This photo was taken about 2 hours after the previous, and probably only about 10km later. You can see the road snaking around to the right of the picture. The reward for such a sweaty workout were the stunning views over the Livingstone Mountains.

    Leaning hut

    Nice to find some shady spots on this track to Lupira.

    View from Lupira

    The views around the remote mission station of Lupira were really quite dramatic. The road I should have arrived on cuts into the mountainside on the top right of this picture. This picture is looking north.

    Screen shot from Tanroads online maps

    Tanzania’s National Roads Authority (TANROADS) website has a surprisingly good database of maps detailing the network of roads in the country. I took a series of screenshots of the road network in the Southern Highlands on my phone, which turned out to be very useful and accurate as the names used here are those in existence. GPS devices and paper maps occasionally use inaccurate names. Lupila, which really felt like the middle of nowhere due to the difficulty in reaching it, doesn’t actually appear on most maps.

    South to Mlangali

    The weather and scenery continues to keep me happy as I head south from Lupira on day 4.

    View over the Southern Highlands

    Few people live in a region that’s probably one of the most fertile in the country. The population of Tanzania is growing rapidly, but it’s towns where people want to live – the same throughout most of Africa. Tanzania as a whole remains sparsely populated and in the areas where roads are poor and mobile network non existent, such as this one, that isn’t likely to change too quickly.

    Southern Highlands

    Looking westwards towards the Livingstone Mountains, the other side of which lies Lake Malawi.

    Road under construction

    Without much notice the road to Mlangali (day 4) suddenly came to an end at the bottom of a valley, where a small team of workers were constructing a bridge. With a little assistance I was able to push my bike across the other side and continue, something which reminded me of the simplicity of being on a bicycle.

    Road to Ludewa

    After several hard days since leaving Mbeya, the road, at least for a short distance, followed a valley floor as I continued south to the town of Ludewa. This photo was taken in the late afternoon and I soon realised that in such scenic surroundings with no sizeable villages or towns in cycling distance, it would make for a good place to camp

    First night in the new tent

    Always exciting to spend your first night in a new tent. This is the MSR Nook, a relatively new tent from the same manufacturer that makes the very popular, and excellent, Hubba Hubba, which I had used for many years previously. I still have the Hubba Hubba, but the rain-sheet has lost most of its waterproofness after 400+ nights in it. I expected this tour to be wet at times, which it wasn’t, and so felt it was time for a new tent. MSR have supported me before with their gear, but at the time of starting this journey the new MSR Hubba Hubba NX was out of stock. I was offered a good price on the Nook, which has a tunnel design and is more compact and slightly lighter than the Hubba Hubba, so decided to give it a go. I’ll write in more detail about it elsewhere, but this was a nice spot to pitch up in – surrounded by Miombo woodland and a backdrop of mountains on either side of the valley.

    Mountains around Ludewa

    Great mountain scenery and views of Ludewa District at about 2000m altitude here.

    Manda Bay

    At the end of a hot and dusty road on the shores of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) lies Manda Bay. After 5 hard days on the road it was great to swim here, although I soon missed the comparatively cool mountain air.

    Biography of David Livingstone

    I packed a few books with me for the tour, one of which being a biography of David Livingstone. Turns out the much feted hero of African exploration wasn’t such the saint many have held him up to be, ultimately failing in his endeavours to convert Africans to Christianity and in finding the source of the Nile. Having said that, his accomplishments in terms of how much of the continent he explored remain impressive, although no mention is made in the book of the Kipengere Moutain Range, which rise up from the north eastern shores of Lake Malawi and are commonly now called the Livingstone Mountains.

    Lakeshore Mission

    Livingstone may have failed in his direct objectives, but his legacy and that of other missionaries who followed in his wake have remained a strong influence in many parts of Africa. The population in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania are predominantly Christian and many old churches, such as this one pictured here a few kilometres south of Manda Bay, are a common sight. Remote and scenic places seem to be common denominators for the location of missions, although living next to Lake Malawi was never a very sensible decision for European missionaries. Malaria remains prevalent and it’s bloody hot.

    Ruhuhu River

    A short distance south from Manda Bay the Ruhusu River drains into Lake Malawi. There is no bridge so small boats transport passengers across. ‘Any crocs?’ I asked the young boy paddling me across. ‘Over there’, he points  to a bank of dense reeds upstream.

    Heading south beside Lake Niassa

    Heading south along the shores of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi). The cool blueness of the lake and sky provided little relief to the relentless heat. This dirt track, highly scenic as it was, also followed the rule that no gradient is too steep.

    Smile for the selfie

    Never hard to find a smile in Tanzania, most of Africa for that matter. Villages are full of children. 45% of Tanzanians are under 15 years old, 65% under 24. The statistics, shocking as they sound, are easy to believe. This was taken in a village along the shores of the Lake where I stopped for a warm coke.

    New born baby with mother

    A gaggle of women standing on the road ahead caused me to stop. The excitement was for the new born baby – just 2 days old, swaddled in a blanket within his teenage mother’s arms. ‘Give a gift for the new born’ they all shouted. A handed over a small sum of money. There were then cheers and I asked for a picture, thinking as I took it that this would have made a better gift. But I was a long way from anywhere with electricity, let alone a photo printing shop.

    Mbamba Bay

    Arriving in Mbamba Bay. I first visited this quiet backwater 14 years ago when backpacking around east and southern Africa. Like other places I have revisited since, it hasn’t changed other than the appearance of several mobile telephone masts. There is still no electricity and the roads leading here remain unpaved. Places like this, far far away from the commercial capital Dar es Salaam, are mostly forgotten about.

    Lake transport in Mbamba Bay

    Mbamba bay is about as far south as one can go in Tanzania before crossing into Mozambique, which wasn’t the plan. Fourteen years ago I took a memorable boat from here, travelling north and docking at many of the Tanzanian lakeside villages through which I’d just cycled. This time I wanted to go directly across the lake to Nkhata Bay in Malawi, but there was no official schedule. I was in no particular rush to travel, but didn’t have endless time to wait for a ride. Fortunately it was only a few days before I met the owner of the large boat pictured here. Yes he would be going to Malawi, but not Nkhata Bay. Likoma Island was his destination, a Malawian Island close to the Mozambican mainland. It sounded like an adventure. We agreed a price (about £10) and I was told to return the following evening. I thought about asking if there were life vests onboard, but already knew what the answer would be.

  • A short tour of Central Africa: Part 2 August 4th, 2013

    Here is the second photo instalment of my recent short cycle tour through Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. I’m back at work in Mwanza now, but planning an adventurous cycle tour in central Africa at the end of this year.

    Crossing from Rwanda into Burundi at the border post of Kayanza. The road was well paved, as were all the roads I cycled on in Burundi. 

     The first sign I passed in Burundi was an enormous billboard promoting a mobile phone company. Most people here live in homes without electricity, but mobile phone towers provide telephone coverage. The same is true throughout much of sub-saharan Africa. 

    The Akanyaru River divides Rwanda from Burundi, ensuring a descent towards and an inevitable climb away from the border. In such a rural location this enormous billboard seemed ridiculously out of place, although I’m sure everyone was happy to have mobile reception. 

    My first night in Burundi was spent camping beside a Police Station. When packing for this tour I was in two minds about whether bringing a tent was necessary, but having it proved valuable on two occasions. Darkness comes quickly in Africa, so rather than listen to local advice that a guest house wasn’t far away (a wildly inaccurate claim) I decided to stop in the first village. As expected there was an audience until Dave and I retired to our tents and said goodnight. In the morning we were up at sunrise and on the road soon after. My MSR Hubba Hubba tent is still going strong after 400+ nights of use. It’s a much more suitable tent in warm weather than the Hillberg that Dave uses.

    I never tire of stopping to appreciate the artistry and character found within some of the local Chinese and Indian bikes in Africa.

    Like Rwanda, Burundi has one of Africa’s highest population densities. There is almost always someone on the roadside. On day 2 in the country I passed a village bursting with colour and activity as a group of women were selling sweet potatoes.

    A group of young boys looked towards me nervously as I stopped to take a photo of the bananas and drums being sold at the roadside.

    Burundian cyclists are a fearless bunch. At any opportunity to save some energy and time they can be found clinging onto the backs of trucks heading into and out of Bujumbura. The main road out of Burundi’s capital ascends from 700m in altitude to over 2200m. Trucks often tow 4 cyclists or more, all of whom ride side-saddle, nonchalantly whizzing past at speeds of over 50km/h. 

    As if holding on to speeding trucks wasn’t dangerous enough, there were also instances of cyclists clinging onto minibuses and cars. 

    The descent towards Bujumbura is the most scenic and exhilarating I have experienced when entering an African capital.

    A number of cyclists carry passengers at over speeds of 60km/hr towards Bujumbura, a descent of around 30km.

    A clean bank note is a rare note in Burundi. Burundian Francs are some of the grubbiest notes issued in Africa. 

    South from Bujumbura a flat road follows the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Beer billboards are as common as those promoting mobile networks.

    Primus is Burundi’s most popular and cheapest bottled beer, but Dave and I agreed that Amstel was far superior.

    Lake Tanganyika is Africa’s longest and deepest lake, dropping to a depth of 1.5km. With waves crashing onto sandy beaches it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is over 1000km away from the sea. 

    I’m always amazed at the loads that are frequently transported by bicycle in Africa.

    Local restaurants are relatively easy to find in Burundi. Palm oil is frequently used in cooking beans and plantain and fresh milk is a popular drink at any time of the day. 

    Perhaps the best meal I had in Burundi was a very simple plate of fish and chips ($4) in the lakeside town of Nyanza Lac (the fish – Sangala was the local name, had probably been caught a few hours earlier). The influence of a Belgian history in Burundi is apparent from the fact that mayonnaise is always available.

    Away from Lake Tanganyika a steep climb awaits (14-15%) ascending from an altitude of 700m to about 1600m.

    A number of Burundians are able to speak Swahili, so I was able to converse in basic conversation with many people at the roadside.

    Tinted glasses seem to be popular in Burundi. When I asked a few people I was told that the lack of vitamins in the diet meant many people had bad eyesight and required glasses. Why tinted glasses I’m not sure. 

    Most of Burundi’s roads are surprisingly paved and blissfully free of traffic. There are also some screamingly steep descents. I clocked 76km/h on one road and Dave hit 84km/h on his fully loaded bike.

    There remains uncertainty as to where exactly the River Nile begins its course (some say Rwanda others Burundi). I doubt there is much information available at either. A broken sign post pointing up a dirt track showed the source to be 26km away from here.

    The condition of saddles probably explains why many people choose to ride their bicycle by sitting on the rear rack, particularly when descending hills. 

    Rambo once was, and still is, a popular figure in Africa. 

    The wall of a Guest House I stayed in one evening was painted with some interesting artwork. 

    Burundi doesn’t see many foreigners, particularly those travelling by bicycle. I found the people welcoming, curious and less demanding than other African countries where calls for money and gifts accompany many interactions.

    African bicycles usually come in just one size, but that doesn’t stop those not big enough trying to ride. 

    Brick kilns are a popular sight on the roadside in Burundi. 

    And how else are most bricks transported from the kiln to town? 

    It was pineapple season when I cycled through Burundi. One pineapple like these pictured cost around (£0.20). Fortunately I had sufficient space to carry at least a few whenever I stopped.  

    My Surly front rack has always been great for transporting fruit. 

    The scenery in Burundi never bored. 

    Like many African borders a river separates Burundi with Tanzania. The border town of Kobero is in the background here. In total I spent just over 1 week in Burundi. 

    Back in north western Tanzania it wasn’t long before the sight of plantain being carried by bicycle greeted me again.

    For the second time on the tour we needed to camp when the sun disappeared and local knowledge proved wildly inaccurate about distances to the next town with a Guest House. I didn’t pack my stove so relied on Dave’s multi-fuel to cook up some basic meals.

    Meat soup is a popular breakfast in Tanzania, but as Dave’s expression shows, a bowl of offal is not really that appetising. 

    Rural roads in Tanzania are mostly free of traffic, but there are some long distances between towns and the cycling can at times be dull. The blue tray strapped to the back of my camping bag is a Primus tray – a small souvenir from Burundi.

    The rock-strewn landscape around Mwanza makes for some good photo backdrops.

    A confident young boy approached me with a head balanced full of bananas. I bought a bunch before he happily posed for the camera.

    A short ferry journey across a southern inlet of Lake Victoria brought us back to Mwanza district.

    Onboard and nearing the end of the tour.

    Approaching Mwanza and what for the time-being is ‘home’. I’m fortunate to have this view on a daily basis as I cycle to work and back alongside the shores of Lake Victoria. Unfortunately there is too much traffic to make it a relaxing ride, and this is the only real scenic stretch. Mwanza is Tanzania’s second largest urban centre, so the tranquil scene pictured here is a little misleading. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant enough place to be in Africa for a few years. I’m happy to be out on the bike daily – planning another tour and attempting to get back to writing the Big Africa Cycle book.

  • Tanzania for two years June 7th, 2013

    Mwanza doesn’t seem like a bad place to live for two years. Back in January of this year, days before flying out of the UK, I applied for a job with the British Council in Tanzania. A friend who knew I was returning there brought the job to my attention.

    On paper I was qualified for the post, but I imagined lots of people with far greater experience than me were applying. Besides, I wasn’t particularly serious about taking up a teacher-training job when my focus was to continue with the book I’d started. With that in mind I filled out the online application, obviously extolling how relevant two-and-a-half years cycling through Africa was to working in a government teacher training college. My hopes of hearing back weren’t very high.

    A month or so later I received news inviting me for an interview. The British Council in Dar es Salaam was only a short distance away from where I was in Zanzibar. It seemed logical that a ferry back to the mainland and a face-to-face interview would follow. Instead several more weeks passed before a recruitment consultant in Manchester telephoned me.

    The writing progressed slowly out there, as it had been since I started the book, but I prevented myself from getting stressed. Zanzibar wasn’t the environment to worry about a deadline I never really had. As the days and weeks went by I enjoyed the experience of becoming familiar with my surroundings, rather than the more often scenario of preparing to leave. There were always new faces, both local and foreign, including a number of trans-African cyclists showing up. I enjoyed the heat, the simplicity of my days, but most of all the fact that I was back in Africa. I wanted to stay rather than return.

    Other than half a dozen talks lined up I had no real desire to go back to the UK. The book wasn’t going to be finished in those three months away, and self-promoting myself as a means to gain more public speaking engagements had little appeal. Ultimately I feared finding myself far away from where I really wanted to be, which was Africa.

    And so this job, which brought with it the opportunity to spend two years in Tanzania, with some semblance of structure and stability, needless to say regular income, took on greater appeal. My hopes and future began to be pinned on being offered a contract. Yes the open road and all the many places I still wanted to cycle were in my mind, but I had no big trip lined up. Writing the book was proving time-consuming and I needed something more.

    I wanted familiarity with my surroundings – the opportunity to make connections and be part of a community, even if I was an outsider, for a little while. The last time I had something resembling this was when I lived in Japan. That was eight years ago. I also felt that if could get myself comfortably settled I might be able to continue with the book.

    Every day following what felt like a ramble of a one-hour interview, where I envisaged boxes being crossed rather than ticked at the other end, I checked my inbox. It was more than a week later before that email finally came. ‘The British Council are delighted to offer you a two-year contract in Tanzania’ were the words I quickly lifted off the screen. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I was delighted and surprised.

    A list of 34 teacher-training colleges across the country was soon emailed to me and I was asked if I had a preference. The town names were familiar, but online information about the colleges was scarce. Most appeared to be located many miles from the small towns within which they were listed. I envisaged it taking hours to get anywhere from some remote and unremarkable place. Two years seemed like a long time to live somewhere like that.

    One teaching college soon caught my attention when I discovered it was just 8km from Mwanza, the country’s second biggest city. On the shores of Lake Victoria, the location looked appealing. There was an airport with cheap flights back to Dar es Salaam, a ferry connection across the lake and even a railway line running south. There would be none of the coastal humidity up at an altitude of 1100m, and travelling to places like Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi wouldn’t be that difficult. The city even boasted a few squash courts.

    It was only when I returned to Tanzania following a ten-day stay in the UK that I got the second bit of news I wanted. Yes I would be going to Mwanza. Butimba Teacher Training College would be my new work place. As for the other British Council teachers (there were 11 who began their contract in May with me) some seemed content with their placements whereas others had little or no preference.

    What I knew about the job was as follows. After disastrous national exam results last year, in which most Secondary school students failed, Tanzania’s Ministry of Education recognized the need to improve the quality of English language teaching in Tanzania. English here is the country’s second language following Kiswahili, but it’s used as the language of instruction in Secondary and Tertiary education. One reason many students fail their exams is because a number of teachers lack the linguistic fluency and skills necessary to teach in English.

    The truth is I’ve never taught teachers before. I arrived in Mwanza several weeks ago, but haven’t started classes yet. The college, which is comprised of 55 tutors, (those I will instruct) and over 1000 prospective secondary school teachers, is closed until July. Hopefully the course-books provided by the British Council will be at the college then.

    After staying in hotels (both in Dar and Mwanza) that boasted several more stars than the type I’m accustomed to in Africa, I moved into a house two weeks ago. This is also a step up in terms of the quality of accommodation I’m familiar with.

    My bicycle naturally naturally came with me. It takes me 25 minutes to reach college, about 10km away. That’s less than half the time it would take by dala dala, the ubiquitous death trap of a mini-bus that plies the roads of Tanzania.

    With all this free time in June I ought to recommence with the writing. That at least would be one option, but when days of leave are limited I’ve chosen to get back on the saddle. A ferry across Lake Victoria from Mwanza has brought me to Bukoba. From here I am cycling into Rwanda and south to Burundi, a country I haven’t been to before. It’s the dry season and the skies are blue. Without front panniers my load weighs half what I’m normally used to, which will be a big help considering the terrain.

    I have my camera, so hope to post some pictures up here when I’m back. Should you find yourself in Mwanza do get in contact. There’s some great cycling around the town.

  • Over old ground: South from Dar es Salaam November 8th, 2011

    “When travelling alone one can behave childishly without fear of derision” (Devla Murphy)

    In reflection the bus journey was far more memorable than the cycling. On a November morning eleven years ago I travelled on what must surely have been the oldest bus pulling out of Dar es Salaam that day. The journey to Kilwa Masoko, some 350km to the south, took 2 days.

    The bus was in a far worse condition than the road, which was also a mess. That age-old vehicle broke down continually, got stuck in mud and required the passengers to push it out, and when it arrived half-way at the Rufiji river the chain-ferry had stopped service for the day. Passengers slept on the bus. I opted for the roof and got mauled by mosquitoes before the rain came down.

    In the daytime the roof was in fact the best place to sit. The sound of screaming babies below was only just audible and there was no smell – that  gut-wrenching infusion of bodies sweating, livestock defecation and sacks of dried fish baking in the heat.

    I think the memory remains vivid because it was my first ‘real’ African bus journey. Now buses make the journey to Kilwa in about 6 hours. There is a bridge over the Rufiji and the road is mostly paved.

    It took me four days to cycle it. I had planned on three but the heat and humidity defeated me. At the end of my first day out of Dar I counted drinking 9 litres of water on the road and a further 2 in the evening. All there was to show for it was a lame dribble before falling asleep in a fan-less room, that for 3000tsh (£1.20) is about as cheap as accommodation gets in Africa.

    For the most part the landscape was dull. One might call it a coastal road, but the Ocean was always out of sight and there were no real climbs to get a good vantage point of the surroundings. The bush was often burnt to a dust-coloured brown by the sun. In many places it had actually been set alight and burnt, leaving it black and lifeless. This burning is done to regenerate growth of new grass (I think?) when the short rains come in November. There never seems to be any control. Flames race towards the road in the wind and the sky rains down with ash. It is a practice done in much of Africa. The rainy season is always a more scenic time to be cycling Africa, despite the frustration and intrusion it can make to a day on the road.

    The long hot road south

    Not all the landscape was parched dry. Mango and cashew trees provided some colour. The former are laden with fruit and in several weeks time roadsides in Tanzania will be lined with stacks of them. Outside of the towns they will sell for 50 or 100 shillings (£0.04) in the height of the season and taste immeasurably better than what one might pay £2.00 or more for in a supermarket back home. Occasionally in Africa I have told people what  the Pineapple, Mango, Papaya or whatever tropical fruit it is I am buying on the roadside for a matter of pence would cost me back home, but this often seems to reinforce the chasm between my life and fortune and the people I’m buying from.

    A handful of cashew nuts, depending on quality, will also sell for anything between 100-500 shillings (£0.04-£0.20). Unlike mangoes they don’t just drop of the trees. One cashew nut grows from one cashew fruit and must be roasted in its shell before being carefully tapped to release the nut. I watched and helped with the process in The Gambia last year. Most cashew nuts are exported to India from here for processing.

    Cashew nuts for sale

    The east African coast is dotted with the ruins of forts and trading posts, which at one time saw the export of slaves, ivory and gold from its shores in exchange for textiles, jewellery and spices from Asia. In the 12th Century the small island of Kilwa Kisiwani was the largest city on the east African coast. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I visited the first time I was here and decided I’d seen enough ruins in the past few months to warrant a return trip.

    Neighbouring Kilwa Kivinjie was equally as interesting. This was also an Arabic and later German administrative centre. What remains is a familiar display of crumbling coral-brick buildings that locals treat more like a rubbish dump. Preservation of historical buildings comes a long way down the list of priorities for most African people. In fact it isn’t a priority at all. Fishing dominates here. Hundreds of small wooden craft make their way out through the mangrove-shallows each day to return with what is a life-line for the majority of people here, and elsewhere along the coast.

    Islamic arches in Kilwa

    Back street in Kilwa Kivinjie

    Kilwa Kivinjie ruins

    Fishing boats in Kilwa Kivinjie

    Fish market in Kilwa Kivinjie

    Fish carriers

    Fish carrier

    Fried fish for sale

    Chapati time

    Young girl

    Local shop in Kilwa Kivinjie

    South from Kilwa the sea disappears from view for another 170km until one approaches the town of Lindi. Other than a few new banks and the ubiquitous Chinese motorbikes little has changed from when I was here last. I met two Slovenians on the way in and two French on the way out. Both were travelling on two-wheels, the former on a motorbike and the latter on bicycles. I stopped to chat with both, the cyclists naturally for longer.

    Lindi beach

    Jeremie and Claire have been on the road in Africa for just over a year, although the appearance of their bikes, the loads they were carrying and the sun-faded panniers made me think longer. Both were carrying Accordions and a didgeridoo (I don’t think they make light-weight versions for cyclists) – making music and recording sounds through Africa. We ate chapattis, rice and beans and washed it down with numerous cups of tea in a small mud-brick café at the roadside. Encounters like this are often the most enjoyable on the road, but they happen too rarely and you usually say goodbye too soon seeming as you’re travelling the opposite way. I told them to look out for Hiromu, who is also heading south from Dar shortly.

    Jeremy and Claire

    I assumed they had come from northern Mozambique, but had instead taken the road through southern Tanzania that connects with Lake Malawi. I travelled this way on very slow buses before, and don’t remember it to be as scenic as they said.

    Northern Mozambique, like the region of Tanzania they were coming from, is seldom visited by foreigners. I will be entering in the next day or two, the first border crossing over a river since I left CAR for the DRC. I’m not quite sure I’ll encounter the same level of adventure there as I did in the Congo, but a return to Portuguese-speaking Africa will make an interesting change.

    Locally made bicycles

  • Never die: The Bagamoyo boat October 11th, 2011

    It would have been simpler, needless to say a whole lot safer to leave Zanzibar on one of the regular high-speed ferries that shuttle back and forth to Dar es Salaam. The moment one approaches the port there is no shortage of commission-hungry touts waiting to escort you to one of many ticket offices. Here the ticket price will be quoted in US dollars (double or several times the local resident price) and you will be whisked away in air-conditioned comfort on a boat that maintains a schedule. Travel in places where there are lots of tourists is sometimes just too easy.

    Taking a dhow on the other hand is something foreigners generally only do at sunset – one of the listed ‘things to do’ in many guidebooks to the island I’m sure. Great if you’re romancing a girl on your holidays, less so if you’re not. Yet for centuries this is how everyone arrived on or departed from the island.

    Coming from the mainland most would have started their journey in Bagamoyo – at one time the capital of German East Africa, and before that a terminus for thousands of slaves who’d been marched eastwards out of Central Africa. Those that survived the journey dubbed the town ‘Bwagamoyo’ – meaning ‘crush your heart’. Here they awaited a sea voyage, first to nearby Zanzibar, and then across the Arabian Sea towards their final destination somewhere in the Gulf.

    It’s also where all those 19th Century explorers arrived on the continent and set off into the interior with their enormous entourage of porters. Stanley, Grant, Burton, Speke, and most famously David Livingstone all came here. For the latter it was where he would end his time in Africa – he arrived dead having been carried 1500 miles by his porters from Lake Bangweulu in Zambia.

    Bagamoyo has long since been replaced by Dar es Salaam, 70 km further south, as the centre of commercial activity along the Tanzanian coast, but it remains the shortest sea route between island and mainland (just 20 nautical miles), and that obviously favoured by boats which rely on sail power.

    Well it was a sail-powered boat to the mainland that I was interested in, but there was no ticket office advertising the journey. That is probably because there aren’t tickets for dhows plying the Zanzibar-Bagamoyo route on a daily basis. These are essentially cargo-boats, as they always have been, transporting anything from charcoal and cement, to tomatoes, salt, used-clothes and scrap metal. Passengers, if there any, sit on top. There is no time-table. Boats go when sufficiently loaded (very often overloaded) and the captain decides.

    Before leaving Zanzibar a large veiled woman at the immigration office made me write my own declaration – stating something to the effect that the captain of the boat would bear no responsibility for any eventuality on his boat. This was tempting fate. Moments before I’d stopped beside some graffiti that made me contemplate whether taking a dhow back to the mainland was a wise thing to do.  The graffiti read: Never die.

    Stone Town Graffiti

    The dhow that was to take me contained half a dozen or more freezers and refrigerators, plus a lot of old car tyres. Besides me there were 12 other people aboard: 10 crew, a man carrying several DVD players he said he was going to sell in Dar (how could these have possibly been cheaper on Zanzibar I have no idea) and a teenage boy who spent half of the 4-hour crossing vomiting over the side.

    Dhow port: Stone Town

    Before getting underway I lashed my bike with bungee cords up against the wooden mast at the front of the boat. It wasn’t going to move, but within minutes of clearing Stone Town, colliding with a partially submerged small tanker on the way, it was soaked. Very soon after so was I. But what I feared to be a boat too heavily-laden actually seemed to act in her favour. She rode over the 2-3 metre waves most of the time, but we were too close to what was a choppy sea and the southerly wind was strong enough (Force 5?) to ensure this would not be a dry journey. Had the dhow been empty however we would have rolled all over the place.

    Bike onboard

    It was dangerous journey in many respects, (there were no life jackets, I didn’t know the captain’s experience, the weather could have suddenly changed) but sitting at the stern with a jovial crew eager to hear my limited Swahili as I watched them steering this age-old vessel to shore was one of those journeys you don’t forget.

    Sleeping crew

    Dhow crewman

    I almost lost a pannier on arriving at Bagamoyo. The dhow ran aground several hundred metres from shore and we would need to take a small paddle boat to reach dry land. The problem was it was dark, and moving a bicycle with 6 bags when you are alone means you either leave things out of your sight for some minutes or you hope someone nearby will aid you. Well a mzungu in such a situation is usually always aided in Africa. Once I paid the Captain 10,000tsh ($6) for the journey (a sum that hadn’t been discussed before we left Zanzibar, but I knew was close to what a passenger should pay) I was lifting bike from one boat to another and being paddled towards the shore.

    Arriving alone in unfamiliar African towns in the dark is always best avoided. As I started to re-attach panniers to the bike – having had them carried by the boat porter as we waded through the shallows to the beach, (I carried my bike) I realised one of the front panniers was missing. I turned round and the boat porter had disappeared back into the darkness. Great.

    For the next 20 minutes I stood on the beach next to the crumbling remains of Bagamoyo’s old Customs Office assessing what my losses were. The pannier was still in the small paddle boat surely, but I couldn’t just leave my bike and bags and go back in search of it.

    Old Customs House: Bagamoyo

    The passenger carrying the DVD players came to the rescue. He spoke more English than I do Swahili. Guarding his ‘Simsung’ DVD players he disappeared back into the shallows and emerged triumphant with the missing bag. Hurrah. I had made it to Bagamoyo – body, bike and bags intact. Now I just had to find a place to watch the Rugby – not so easy in this part of the World.

    Bagamoyo beach

    Waiting women

    Dhows in Bagamoyo

    Fish fryer on Bagamoyo beach